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Warren Comes to New York to Push Cuomo, and Maybe Clinton?

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Baby Boomers love Senator Elizabeth Warren. That was one conclusion to be drawn from a campaign-finance reform rally and fundraiser at a church in midtown Manhattan Thursday night. Though Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was on the bill and Public Advocate Tish James made an unannounced appearance, it was obvious that most attendees were there to see Warren, whom Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel said was making her first-ever public appearance in New York City. After Warren spoke, Working Families Party executive director Dan Cantor told the crowd that he felt like he was going on after Madonna. He got a big laugh. Later, he informed a few reporters that while one person had suggested he say it was like going on after Rihanna, “With that crowd, you go with Madonna.” With that crowd, you might even have gone with Lesley Gore.

The evening came at a crucial moment for the newly ascendant (or at least much-discussed) progressive wing of the Democratic Party, particularly in New York state, where the moderate Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo just this week proposed a public campaign financing system modeled on New York City’s. Widely recognized as among the most progressive in the country, it matches $6 of public money for every $1 in donations up to $175, substantially leveling the playing field.

So when Warren told the crowd, “Your governor has said, ‘Let’s attack money in politics head-on,’” it had the feeling of conditional praise. The leading light of the few hundred people in the room, and many thousands of other New York residents, had just lent her imprimatur to the governor—so long as he continues to push for this progressive policy, and does not, say, drop the proposal from his budget next month. It’s a microcosm for the central quandary progressives—including Warren and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio—face. Lacking control over the biggest levers of power, they must demonstrate enough firepower among party faithful that the party’s most powerful figures cannot overlook them. This dynamic is most obviously playing out with Warren (and others) hoping to influence Hillary Clinton.

The event was a fundraiser above all for American Family Voices, a non-profit advocacy group closely associated with Warren, and was focused above all on campaign finance reform, with the Citizens United decision the top villain of the evening. (Earlier this week on this website, Mark Schmitt explained why the “inequality” debate right now should focus on campaign finance.)

Many of the speakers gave Cuomo props. “This week, for the first time in our history, a governor, our governor, my friend and client, our governor, has put the language needed to create a system of public financing and real enforcement of our campaign laws into his state budget,” said Schneiderman. “Ladies and gentlemen, I did an ungodly amount of hard time in the state Senate before I got to be the attorney general, and I will tell you, based on that experience, that once you have language in the budget, the legislature can try to stop it, but at the end of the day the governor has the power.” There was talk afterward that Cuomo might have put the campaign-finance proposal in his budget precisely in order to make this event go smoothly. That seems far-fetched, but it is doubtlessly true that events and others like it, and Warren and others like her, helped move Cuomo in that direction.

Warren is very good in-person—hand-waving, speaking passionately, the whole thing. Her speech was less detailed than Schneiderman’s, and was more like a stump speech. A sample passage went:

Who does our government really work for? Does it work for me? Or does it just work for the rich and the powerful? Have we built a system where the rich and the powerful get all the attention they need? They get the rules they need, from the very biggest to the very smallest, the ones that always tilt in their direction, the ones that ultimately rig the game? Or are we an America that builds a better government, that works for all of us? That’s the question people ask. And I think the answer right now is not a happy answer. We’ve got a government that works all too well for the rich and the powerful, and all too little for everyone else.

There was lots of talk of “standing shoulder-to-shoulder”—when Schneiderman and Warren first met, on Valentine’s Day 2011, they exchanged cell-phone numbers—and of the importance of the movement. Why? Because it is going to take a big bloc to move Cuomo, even in an election year, to hold fast to public financing in his budget. And it is going to take many, many villages to make a likely-to-run, likely-to-win Hillary Clinton move substantially leftward before 2016.